Turning 66 in February, and self-isolating due to Covid-19, has brought back a flood of memories. I see, now, that if I’d behaved differently, or said something different, the outcome of so many past experiences would have been much more positive. It’s painful because I can’t go back and relive them.
Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor are two of my favourite movie stars. I was going to write a chronological timeline, focusing on their impact on my life. But, as the mind works, the memories came jumbling all over in time.
My first memory of Marilyn Monroe was when I was eight, playing in the sandbox, in front of our cottage, at Lake Scugog. We went there every summer until my father’s business went bankrupt and he could no longer afford to rent the cottage. We (my 4 siblings and I, plus my mother) would spend the whole summer up there. My Dad was working in Toronto and would come up on weekends.
My grandmother opened the screen door of the cottage.
“Marilyn Monroe’s dead. It’s on the radio.”
Nanna showed me a picture of Marilyn in a movie magazine. (Movie magazines were the People magazine of their day, only way more gossipy.)
“She’s so beautiful,” I remember thinking. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair.
I watched a lot of TV when I was in school. I saw Marilyn in “How to Marry a Millionaire”, “The River of No Return” and “The Seven Year Itch” many, many times. I started reading movie magazines around the time of the sandbox incident. That’s how I discovered Elizabeth Taylor. In 1962, the same year Marilyn died, Elizabeth was in Rome shooting “Cleopatra” and having a scandalous love affair with her co-star, Richard Burton. Both were already married so it was hot gossip. Their pictures were on the cover of every magazine. Inside, were stories about “le scandale” and the making of “Cleopatra”. I couldn’t wait to see the movie when it came out in 1963 but it was classified “Adult Entertainment”. I was only 9 so I was too young to see it.
Then Liz and Dick, as they were called, made another movie called “The V.I.P.s”
I asked my mother, “What’s a vip?”
“It’s pronounced v, i, p. It means, Very Important Person,” and then she explained what that meant.
That film was also classified as “Adult Entertainment”, so I couldn’t see that one, either.
I suppose I was precocious. At the age of 8, I was reading the Entertainment section of the Toronto Telegram; mostly the movie reviews. I was nuts about movies. I wanted to be a movie star when I grew up. When I was 10, I read a review of the foreign film, “Night Games”, directed by actress Mai Zetterling. The review mentioned a scene with a boy, in bed, masturbating under the covers, while his mother was reading to him.
“Daddy, what does “masturbating” mean?”
“Don’t you know?,” he responded, looking very embarrassed.
He hesitated, then replied, “Well, you’ll find out, one day.”
End of discussion.
I watched lots of classic films, on our black and white TV, growing up. “Picnic”, “The Bad Seed”, “Suddenly, Last Summer” (starring Liz) and “Something Wild” (starring Carroll Baker) come to mind. I would watch them, again, and again.
I was an outcast because I was very girlish, loved Barbie dolls and played skipping with the girls. I also loved “dress up”, i.e. drag. (I did have a few girlfriends to play dolls with, however.) My mom would let me wear her jewellery and dresses. The other kids were mean. They would follow me home from school, in groups, chanting, “Philip is a girl. Philip plays with dolls.” I’d come home for lunch, crying. My mother was a stay at home Mom, raising 5 kids, plus my niece, Julia. (My oldest sister got pregnant at 15 and ended up a single mom.) Mom was no real help in dealing with the taunting. She’d say, “When people are mean, you have to be extra nice to them. Then, they’ll feel guilty.” Well, as you can imagine, that didn’t help matters, at all.
Then, in Grade 5, Ian came into my life. He emigrated from England, with his family. We became almost inseparable. And he loved movies, too. We got a weekly paper route, The Scarborough Mirror, in Grade 5, which financed our movie going. Every Saturday, from the age of 11, we would go downtown, from Scarborough, on the TTC, and go to movies. We’d see a movie in the afternoon, have a meal, then see another movie in the evening. One Saturday, we saw 4 movies, starting in the morning. The Downtown Cinema, in a basement on Yonge Street, north of Dundas, played double features of Elvis Presley films and things like, “Get Yourself a College Girl”, starring Chad Everett, starting at 9:30 a.m.
My oldest brother, John, had been going there for years. He’d come home and talk about the Beach Party movies with Frankie and Annette. I was too young to go and jealous as hell. He’d also go to all the amazing clubs on Yonge Street, in the 1960s, and see the soul singers. Toronto, at that time, had wonderful live entertainment. The black transgender soul singer, Jackie Shane, was very popular. I was too young to get into the clubs. John would rave about Jackie and tell stories about her. (Jackie was living as a man, back then.) I was so upset that I couldn’t see her live.
Judy Garland played at the O’Keefe Centre, in 1965, and I couldn’t see her, either. (I couldn’t afford the tickets.)
When I was 11, I managed to get a modeling agent and a talent agent for acting jobs. My first go-see was for a colour spread in the Toronto Telegram. I was interviewed by two men in a room at the Judy Welch Modeling Agency. It was quite obvious they didn’t like me. In the waiting room, one of the mothers told me about Producers’ Services, a talent agency run by Molly Petty, Dini Petty’s mother. I went to an interview with Molly and she sent me on an audition for a TV commercial. Get this: It was in a hotel room at the King Edward Hotel. I went downtown, by myself, to the audition, at 11 years old!! Of course, I was nervous. The hotel room was a suite with a living room and a bedroom. I saw a well-dressed middle aged woman come out of the front door of the hotel room. I recognized her from TV. She smiled at me with very sympathetic eyes. In 2020, can you imagine letting your 11 year old son go to a hotel room, alone, to an audition?! And my parents thought nothing of it. It never occurred to me that I could possibly be in danger. It WAS a legitimate audition. I didn’t get the gig. Neither agent sent me out, again. My parents wouldn’t pay for proper headshots. All I had were snapshots taken by my brother’s best friend, who shot pictures for the Scarborough Mirror.
In Grade 9, Ian and his family moved back to England, just before Christmas. I was devastated. However, we were pen pals for years. I even visited him in England, the summer before Grade 13. That’s where I saw the gay-themed British film, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and Ken Russell’s wild and brilliant, “The Devils”, by myself, in London, both in one day. Six months later, I came out to Ian. He wrote back wishing me well, “in my new life”, and I never heard from him, again.
The fall before Ian left, my father paid for me to take acting lessons with Jack Medhurst, a gay, middle aged, Toronto actor. He had a studio and a 50 seat theatre on the second floor of a building at Church and Carlton. (The building is still there.) I was 13 and 14 in an adult class. I was elated and terrified. We did improvisation and Jack taught theatrical make-up, as well. I was also in 3 children’s plays that he directed. I adored acting. I worked with so many excellent actors and would stay behind to watch them rehearse adult plays, such as, “Barefoot in the Park”.
During the run of the first play, I got a splitting headache from nerves. After I exited, I threw up in the wings. Three other actors, also playing pirates, exited right after me, stepping over my vomit.
I studied with Jack for one year. My dreams of stardom came crashing down when my mother said they couldn’t afford to send me for a second year. (“We can’t afford it,” was a mantra, all through my youth.)
When I was 11, I had two girlfriends. Louann was a foot taller than me. We dated for a year or so. We would slow dance at parties with me standing on a chair. She was a fully developed woman and very sexually precocious. We were the same age but I had yet to go through puberty. She was always showing me her naked body. One day, Louann and I were fooling around in her basement. I was trying to remove her bikini top. She was giggling and flipped over onto my wrist and broke it. (At 9, I broke the other wrist when a bully tripped me on a skating ring.)
With Ian gone, and acting school over, I became a loner. I went to movies on my own. I sent away for a series of books called “The Films of…” One of them was ‘The Films of Marilyn Monroe’. I still have it. The first bio I read about Marilyn was, “Norma Jean”, by Fred Lawrence Guiles. I bought other books about her, as well. I’ve only seen her films on TV, VHS and DVD. The only time I ever saw her on the big screen was a few years ago at a very crowded Dundas Square. They were playing “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. I had seen it many times, already, so I only stayed for 10 minutes. The first time I saw “The Misfits” was on my sister’s black and white set in our basement. The tube was old so the actors looked like little people. I had wanted to see it for years and was totally enthralled. Half an hour before it was over, my sister came home, with her date, and made me turn it off. I was so upset.
In high school, I didn’t have a part time job so I couldn’t afford to see many movies, except on TV. I was gaga for Classic Films. I spent my whole adolescence sleep deprived because I was always watching the Late Show. That created lots of fights with my mom. She believed that everyone should go to bed at 11 pm. I, however, loved the quiet of the night.
I would go through the TV Guide, circling all the movies I wanted to see. Sometimes, I would watch 2 movies, on TV, in one day. And I had favourite actresses, like Anne Baxter and Lois Nettleton, who did a lot of TV movies and guest shots on series. I was in heaven. And, of course, there was always Marilyn. In Grade 12, one of her movies was on afternoon TV. I desperately wanted to see it. I asked mom if she would write me a note saying I had a dentist appointment. .
“Okay,” she said. “You’ve been working very hard at school. You deserve it.”
Liz wasn’t on TV as often as Marilyn was. A year after its release, “Cleopatra” was reclassified so I finally got to see it. It was a visually gorgeous film but rather boring for someone so young.
I saw a lot of racy Italian films on TV, as a teenager. They were always cut to ribbons and badly dubbed into English.
Ian wasn’t the first best friend to move away. John Weaver was my best friend in Grades 1 and 2. Then he moved away, too. I learned, at a young age, that friendship can be an ephemeral thing. I had been observing John in school and decided I wanted to be his friend so I followed him home to see where he lived. I boldly knocked on the door. His mother answered.
“John invited me over to play,” I lied.
John swore he hadn’t invited me. His mother scolded him and asked me in. We played and I stayed for dinner and we became best friends.
Fast forward to 2005. I played a drag queen in a play, in a small theatre, at Take a Walk on the Wildside, a B & B/boutique for drag queens. I became friendly with Chrissy, one of the drag queens. We’d chat in the dressing room as I prepared for the play and he got ready to go out on the town. A few years later, Chrissie was hospitalized with cancer. The owner of the boutique asked me if I would help pack up his stuff, on Boxing Day, because he’d sold his house. I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this on Boxing Day?” I had nothing else planned and I figured it’s always a good thing to help people. In his bedroom, I picked up an inactivated credit card sitting on a dresser. The name on it was John Weaver. Right then, the phone rang. It was Chrissie calling from the hospital to see how things were progressing. I told him I had found the card and asked him if he went to St. Andrews Public School. It was the same John Weaver! He died soon after but I did get to visit him one more time in the hospital. So I knew him as a very young child and was reunited with him, at the end.
One incident connected with movie-going sticks out in my mind. I was 16, walking up Yonge Street after seeing an afternoon movie. There was a 30 something woman walking with her young son. Following them was a middle aged street person, saying lewd and sexually explicit things to the little boy. It was truly shocking. The mother was saying, “Oh, you’re a horrible person”, trying to get away from him. The little boy had a silly smirk on his face. I can’t imagine he understood what was being said to him. To this day, I can’t forget it.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, starring Liz and Dick, was released to great fanfare in 1966. I was only 12 so that was another film I wasn’t allowed to see. It was very controversial for its time, using very frank language for the sixties. My parents went to see it and came home raving. I eventually saw it, a few years later, severely censored, on TV. It was brilliant despite the hack job.
I wanted to be an actor from the age of 4, watching The Mickey Mouse Club on TV, wishing I were one of the children on the show. Annette Funicello, one of the Mouseketeers, was one of my favourite actresses, along with Hayley Mills. I would sit in front of the TV, in semi drag, watching the show. I used socks for breasts and rolled up long underwear as a wig.
When I was 13, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Butterfield 8”, both starring Liz, were rereleased on a double bill. Ian’s mother forbade him to go, saying he was too young for such movies, so I saw it with a sibling. Even at that age, I could understand that “Cat” had a gay subtext, even though it had been totally neutralized compared to the play. A child’s admission price was 35 cents.
Now, as an adult, I have so many of Marilyn and Elizabeth’s films on DVD or VHS, as well as numerous books about them. When Liz died, Christie’s published two fabulous catalogues of her jewels. I had thrown out my bed because of a bed bug outbreak in my apartment building. With $99 in the bank, enough for a new futon or the catalogues, I chose Liz over my own comfort. I’ve spent many happy hours drooling over pictures of her magnificent jewellery. I never got around to buying a new bed.
Nowadays, I really don’t enjoy going to the movies. There are too many distractions from rude, inconsiderate people. I go, perhaps, once a year. I’d much rather watch a film from the comfort of my home. But I still love movies and I still love Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
For more about Philip, please check out his website! philipcairns.com